The first order of business for the Harold Pinter: Histories and Legacies project is to develop a database for registering every major production in the United Kingdom, from 1957 to 2017, of Harold Pinter’s plays, screenplays, television and radio dramas. As our team beavers away, reviewing and tweaking the conceptual design of the database and anticipating its completion, we’re all engaged in various projects and tasks relevant to both the database and other features of the project. It seemed apropos to dedicate an early blog entry to the project title and to reflect upon the nature and possibilities of the Histories and Legacies project.
One of the reasons Pinter was selected as the focus of this project was because of his iconic status and the impact his life and work had, and continue to have, within a British context as well as beyond. This conforms to one of the primary definitions for ‘histories’, which has to do with a life worthy of record. One of the things which makes Pinter worthy of record is the range he achieved throughout his long career. For this blog entry I want to focus on this range, doing so largely by adducing some of what others have said about Pinter based on working with him and by offering some contextualisation of my own.
The range Pinter achieved while working in the mediums of drama (as playwright, actor and director), film, television, radio, poetry, the novel and political activism is impressive. But what really impresses is how Pinter in many cases changed the game in various media because of his work and, from this, he managed to eke out a discernible style and to even rework and move beyond established and taken-for-granted conventions in most of if not all the media, forums and roles he worked in. A hint of this emerges in interviews with actors who were remembering Pinter following his passing, which at various points and diversely mark Pinter’s significance even beyond their own personal and professional relationships with the man.
Jenny Quayle, who acted in Pinter’s work and under his direction, points out that Pinter ‘did much of his groundbreaking work in his [thirties], and yet he constantly reinvented himself.’ (qtd. in ‘Old times: actors remember Harold Pinter’, guardian.com, Jan. 8 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/jan/08/actors-remember-harold-pinter.) Certainly the style Pinter eked out as playwright – indexed by descriptions such as the ‘Pinteresque’ and ‘comedy of menace’ – was articulated immediately in the late 1950s and then reworked over time so as to produce new works and an evolving voice. Attending closely to the periods through which Pinter’s dramas are routinely said to move demonstrates at once a progression from ‘comedies of menace’, to works focused on memory to subsequent overtly political works. However, each stage is complicated by features which point forward to what would come later and, increasingly as Pinter matured, point backward and retain and re-imagine what had already been done. Pinter’s work in other media seems little different in this.
Indira Varma, who worked with Pinter on a number of occasions, underlines that familiar fact of how Pinter’s theatre was ‘all about the language, the rhythm’ (qtd. in ‘Old times: actors remember Harold Pinter’). But then she indirectly coaxes our attention to how Pinter’s style of writing interrupted assumptions that theatre is about putting our thinking caps on and discovering what it all means: ‘You’d feel things very strongly when you watched his stuff,’ she relates, ‘but not quite understand why.’ From the earliest Pinter’s dramas exercised those led by their highly refined instincts for discovering symbolic, conceptual and philosophical meaning in the text and on the stage. Anyone who has attended a Pinter play will likely attest to the immediate and tangible quality of the playworld, which, following Samuel Beckett’s theatre, routinely invites us to make conceptual and symbolic meaning but constantly refuses to transcend the concrete relations and events transpiring before the audience’s eyes.
Thomas Baptiste, whom Pinter directed in a 1960 production of Pinter’s 1957/8 play The Room at the Hampstead Theatre, London, attributes Pinter’s uniqueness to the fact that ‘he was also a very fine actor.’ (qtd. in ‘Old times: actors remember Harold Pinter’) Pinter was a professional actor before he began as a writer, and his experience in this role has numerous upshots, from the fact that there is an inherent performativity to his scripts and the fact that his writing, regardless of the media, comes as ready as can be for staging. For example, the blocking is implied in the dialogue, the relationship between the dialogue and stage directions provides significant guidance through implication rather than instruction and the images flowing from the conversation and monologues serve as scaffolding for directors and designers. Also, because Pinter was an actor his plays had significant appeal for thespians, in no small measure because the dialogue consists fundamentally of what actors would call ‘tactics’ whereby a given speaker strives to manipulate others to personal advantage and their victims’ negotiation of their own subjection to power can entail seizing power momentarily, and thus becoming the victimizer. In this way, the plays are both challenging and fun for amateurs and professionals alike. The precision in Pinter’s writing does anything but constrain actors who discover a productive way to use the word. Explaining how ‘Pinter was very generous in letting a cast create the characters’, Gina McKee ‘likens [the punctuation] to a musical score with a logical rhythm: ‘I always see it as “Harold the actor” speaking to you … it’s a gift.”’’ (qtd. in ‘How Pinter changed the landscape of British theatre’, ATG Tickets, no date. http://www.atgtickets.com/blog/harold-pinter-and-british-theatre/)
Kenneth Cranham, who acted in six Pinter’s plays and appeared alongside the man in 1986 in the television production of The Birthday Party (1986), registers how Pinter’s ‘distilled, compressed and to the point’ writing translated to his direction. ‘When I played Aston in The Caretaker,’ Cranham remembers, ‘he said to me: “At the beginning of this play, Aston hasn’t talked to anyone for 10 years. By the end of it, he won’t talk to anyone for another 20.”’ (qtd. in ‘Old times: actors remember Harold Pinter’) ‘That’s an extraordinary director’s note’, Cranham surmises, and then confesses that ‘the thought of doing one of his plays without him around is frightening.’ The unorthodox and efficacious approach to directing this long-time Pinter actor reports re-echoes through the anecdotes offered by other actors; and the way Cranham depicts Pinter’s absence as changing the shape of his career in perpetuity is an impressive revelation about Pinter’s capacity in a role with which he is associated far less than his writing.
Situated within the constellation formed by Pinter’s variegated yet often intersecting roles and activity one also finds significant work in radio and television. The seeds of Pinter’s work in radio were planted almost in concert with the staging of the aforementioned play The Room, when he submitted a synopsis for The Hothouse in radio play form to Barbara Bray at BBC. By 1959 Pinter had a writing commission for BBC Radio’s Third Programme for A Night Out, which was sold on to ABC’s Armchair Theatre in television form so that in 1960 both were broadcast. In the mix Pinter was acting and doing voice in these productions. Where some producers were initially lukewarm to A Night Out, Sydney Newman believed it to be a ‘[model] of how to write for television’, and listener ratings moreover turned out to be quite positive (Newman qtd. in Irene Shubik’s ‘Television Drama Series: A Producer’s View’, in British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future, edited by Jonathan Bignell and Stephen Lacey, 2014, pp. 45–51, p. 46).
Through his traction with studios and audiences Pinter would go on to shape this medium to some degree given the unorthodox and challenging natures of his storytelling and use of images and form. Even though Pinter’s work in radio and television are overshadowed by the plays, we shouldn’t pass over the fact that radio and television offered Pinter professional success even before his writing for stage did and that because of his presence in this part of British history and the things he accomplished Pinter almost always figures in studies of the history of radio and television.
While the range is already considerable, Pinter also has a lengthy string of impressive film writing credits. While the journey to screenwriting is natural enough for many playwrights, Pinter’s formative relationship to film and his early start writing for television make the process decidedly organic. As a young man, Pinter was on a steady diet of European experimental, arthouse and American social realism, and was working in a professional capacity as a screenwriter only a few years after his emergence as a professional playwright and his commissions for the BBC.
Pinter’s activity in film was robust and betrays its value and impact when can be regarded from a number of standpoints: from his personal collaborations with well-known directors and the extent to which he figures in the narratives of some of the giants of cinema, to the way he more or less inaugurated the publication of collections of screenplays, to the innovations he contrived in order to tackle the problems of adapting literature to screen, to indicate just a few examples. My intention for at least one future blog entry is to continue this exploration of the meanings of the word ‘histories’, but to annex my discussion of the range and impact of Harold Pinter to a few reflections upon the nature of the Pinter: Histories and Legacies project and particularly the technology it employs.
One final remark on range seems in order. You’ll note from both the project description and the ‘people’ pages of this website that the team is diverse, made up of scholars and researchers with research expertise and practical experience in the areas of theatre and performance, cinema, television and radio. This range is important given how it will enable this project on Harold Pinter to account for more than just Pinter’s work as a playwright, director and actor in the dramatic arts. In fact, having this gallery of scholars working in concert, ranging across the history of Pinter’s activity since 1957, is likely to re-present Harold Pinter to a wide-ranging audience of enthusiasts and stakeholders, notwithstanding ourselves as the Pinter team, in new and exciting ways. Our aim is to rediscover again and again what Jenny Quayle offers in her final reminiscence of Pinter: ‘It’s true that there will never be anyone like him again’.
Featured image: Harold Pinter, listed as for non-commercial re-use.